Redeeming Grief

I found out recently that a friend from my past has died. I last saw my friend in Denver over 8 years ago. He wanted to come visit and ski, so he and I and a handful of my friends all met together and had a great day in the mountains. It was a fun visit, and since that time, we had kept in touch only on Facebook. On Sunday morning, I had seen my friend’s alarmingly angry and bitter post about his earthly, biological father and I felt God’s spirit urgently prompt me to send my friend a text message. I felt that God wanted me to assure him that his earthly father was not at all like the Heavenly Father. That whatever his dad said to him did not define him, and that only Jesus could bring him peace, and be an anchor for his searching soul. I told him that God loves him, created him for a purpose, and was waiting for him to ask for help. Four days after I sent him that message, he died. My hope is that he did read it, and maybe it brought him peace. I don’t know if it changed his hardened heart towards God, but I pray that it did. When I first heard he had died, I was slightly comforted that I had listened to God’s nudge. Now that a few days have passed, sadness has fully replaced that small comfort. I can only hope that my friend’s heart was softened, and that he asked Jesus to redeem him.

Oh, the Possibilities

Tomorrow evening at around 9pm, my baby girl will be three years old. How is it possible she is that old, while at the same time, how has she not been part of me all my life? Just three years seems like such a small amount of time relative to how long I’ve been alive, but so much has happened in that time. We moved to Charlotte right when I found out I was pregnant, at just six weeks along. My oldest was just a baby herself, only 21 months old at the time my second baby arrived. I’m so thankful to be out of the postpartum overwhelm and fog. There are new challenges to be faced, but as my girls grow, they’re becoming more independent and more fun. Their personalities have bloomed like the cherry blossoms outside. More is required of me emotionally now, rather than physically, which is only slightly less exhausting than midnight feedings and diaper changes. However, knowing that I have carried my last baby, I look to the future with excitement and lots of prayer at all the possibilities for their lives, as well as for my own.

In the Weeds

I am not a gardener, nor do I have much of a green thumb. I have two houseplants that I’ve miraculously not killed after having them for nearly three months. I will periodically spray them with water when I remember, which is maybe twice a week. However, few years ago, a friend gave me a pulled up piece of mint from her yard in a ziplock bag. I skeptically buried the thin, dirty greenish-white root under a layer of mulch, leaving the few minty smelling leaves above ground. That mint took to the ground almost immediately, and after a few months, the whole 4’x4′ area behind my house was a minty fresh bounty of those hearty, weed-like plants. Today, I decided that it was time to rip them all out. I left one plant to survive in a pot, because, other than homemade mint ice cream or mojitos, I am fairly positive I will never have a use for it all. Plus, it was starting to creep behind the trash and recycle bins, and looked like a gnarly tangle of dried up, withered stems and some purply-tinged green mint leaves; wild and unkempt. The older shoots were no longer even edible. I donned my bright pink galoshes, my gardening gloves, and with a three-pronged cultivator rake in my hand, I proceeded to hack at the ground. With each pull of the cultivator, I’d rip up at least three or four roots. It was so satisfying when I was able to yank up a root with my hands that didn’t snap. Those whole roots were at least two or three feet long, with mint sprouts running along the whole length. There was an entire network of roots underground that intersected through that whole mulched section, and had even forged their way under and around the A/C unit. Some roots had even become hard and woody, very unlike the pliable, pale green shoot from when I first planted the mint.

I was thinking that my thoughts can be like that mint. Things that I can allow myself to focus on and then become angry and callous. Thoughts about past relationships that spring up without prompting, even though they’re buried deep. Those negative thoughts of feeling unworthy and ashamed, feelings of regret and of heartbreak. They can all choke out the life God intends for us to have. None of our past mistakes, bad decisions, or poor choices define us. God freely forgives, never bringing up that which we wish we could forget. His grace, mercy, and ever-pursuing love and redemption are what defines us. If we hand Him the cultivator, He will set to work on our hearts, turning the soil into soft ground, and will rip out those thoughts that have been growing for way too long.

Secret Green

When I was a kid, I shared a bedroom with my sister, my brother had his own room, and my uncle Mark had a bedroom downstairs, just up from the basement. My parents had their own bathroom in their room, and the rest of us shared the only other bathroom upstairs. Our church had a Compassion House ministry. Compassion House was a temporary home for families who needed help getting back on their feet. One family with two little girls lived there for as long as Compassion House would allow, and were no further along in finding a job or being stable than before they came in. So, my parents invited that family to stay at our house, creating a temporary bedroom in the basement for them. I can’t really remember for how long they stayed, perhaps only a week or two in the summer when I was about nine. But, I clearly remember when the dad had made his first twenty dollars, my parents put it in an envelope in the bottom drawer of the big walnut desk in the living room. A few days after that twenty dollar bill was tucked away, the family was gone, and so was that envelope. We never saw or heard from them again. It was strange, having a family of four suddenly living with us, and just as abruptly, not. My parents didn’t make a big deal of it, they just opened up their home, even though it wasn’t terribly convenient. I remember that they didn’t advertise their benevolence. Only the people through our church who coordinated the family to live with us knew. My parents kept their very generous act private by not announcing it to others.

This weekend, my girls, my husband, and I went sledding in the mountains of NC. We brought with us an old, orange saucer sled that looked like it had been run across a cheese grater. My girls were so excited to try the hill, but that orange sled would not budge, even on the icy patches. There was no slide, only friction. Another family was there with two of their little boys, each one toting a new, shiny green saucer sled. The father noticed my husband and I trying to push our still-excited girls atop that orange sled down the hill to no avail. The oldest boy, after some prodding by his dad, willingly gave us his new sled. I nearly cried at his kindness and compassion. My girls proceeded to have the best time ever zipping down that hill together, my oldest in the back, my youngest in the front. That small gift from that little boy gave my girls (and me!) a glow that lasted all weekend. When I find an opportunity to do something for someone, a bubbling feeling of excitement brews in my belly. Out of pride, it would be so easy to take a picture and post, “See what I just did?” But there is no need to advertise. Keep that act of generosity a fun secret just between you and God. The right people will notice, and forever be changed.

But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

Matthew 6:3-4 (New Living Translation)

Splitting Seas

I’ve been reading the book of Psalms for the past few months, going through the reading plan in my Bible. It’s been amazing to look with fresh eyes the gut-wrenching prayers and the peace-filled, thankful praises of David. In chapters 77 and 78, which are what I’ve read yesterday and today, the author fervently reminds us of God’s faithfulness. How He rescued His people out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness, despite their whining and complaining, and even when they completely turned their backs on Him. Sure, God got angry, but he forgave his people and made a way for them come to the Promised Land at last. His love, grace, kindness, patience, and forgiveness is without limit. He is always pursuing our hearts, no matter what we’ve ever done or said.

You split the seas for me
walls of foaming, angry water on each side.
You beckon me to follow you
providing me with a cloud by day
and a flickering flame at night.
You fill me with the bread of heaven
and the water of life,
Sprouting streams from stones
abundant as the depths.
Who am I that you hear my small, quiet prayer?
That you consider me and my request; 
In your ever-gracious kindness,
knowing how much it would mean.
I will follow behind your unseen footprints
with childlike faith and a grateful heart.

Life in Color

I’ve been teaching my daughters, ages nearly 3 and 4 1/2, about skin colors lately. My girls are curious and smart, and I want them to ask questions. We’ve been reading, “God’s Very Good Idea,” by Trillia Newbell. It explains that God’s very good idea is to have lots of different people (different skin colors, different interests, different abilities…everything!) enjoying loving Him and loving each other. This morning, we decided that our skin is not white, but peach. We are big fans of Fancy Nancy in this house, mostly because my oldest daughter Noelle has wildly curly ginger hair just like Nancy. What I also love, is that Nancy’s best friend Bree, is a girl whose brown skin is the color of “hot cocoa,” according to Noelle. Half of my high school in Wilmington, NC was white, half was black, and I was surprised to notice that nobody really sat with anyone who didn’t look like them. I was Sophomore on my first day there, the day after Christmas/New Year break ended. My family and I had moved just before Christmas from northern VA. The two classroom buildings were connected by a breezeway, and the doors were not automatic. I can remember, with a jolt in my stomach, that a tall, dark-skinned girl slammed the door shut just before I could walk inside. I’d never experienced any kind of hostility against me before, and I can remember my eyes brimming while I yanked the door open and walked to my next class, wondering why she hated me without even knowing me.

My first job was at the fast-food restaurant directly across the street from my new school. On my first day , I was greeted by an older white manager named Pat, who introduced me to Tammy, an intimidatingly large girl with skin the color of milk chocolate, a few years older than me. Tammy toured me around and introduced me to the rest of the employees. The manager, Pat, and I were the only white staff that afternoon. It was an odd feeling for me to be in the minority, for me to be the one who looked different from everyone else. I wondered if this was how the small handful of non-white students I’d gone with to school and church in VA had felt; uneasy at first. But I worked there for nearly two years, and when I left, I dearly missed everyone. One of the cooks there was named Leon. He was a lanky older man with dark coffee-colored skin, a limp, and one of his front teeth was missing. He asked me one day about my Spanish sounding last name. “My dad is half French, half Hispanic,” I explained. He thought about that for a minute, then with his missing-tooth smile, he said, “You one of us, then.” A few months after I started, a new girl named “T” was hired. She and I went to the same school and were in the same grade, although we didn’t have any of the same classes. We quickly became friends, and would hug every day we got to work together. We never sat with each other at lunch at school, though. I’d stop by her table to say hi, but there was almost this unspoken rule that we couldn’t sit together. I would have invited her to my table, except I didn’t belong to one. One day at work, T out of the blue said to me, “You’re my best friend.” I was elated. I loved her too. A few months later, she told me that she was pregnant. “Are you going to finish high school?” I asked her anxiously, afraid that she was going to drop out. “Girl, this is the black way. Of course I’m gonna graduate,” she told me confidently. I’ve since wondered why that had to be the “black way.” When she found out her baby was a girl, she asked me to help her pick out a name. She invited me to her baby shower a few months later. A fellow coworker, Kelly, and I were the only two white faces inside T’s mother’s house that day. T did indeed graduate, but after graduation, we both changed jobs, and sadly, she and I never kept in touch after that. I saw Tammy about ten years ago working at the grocery store in the same shopping center when I went to visit my parents. We exchanged phone numbers, but we’ve never put them to use.

Why do we naturally gravitate towards people who look like us? Why do we stick to what is familiar and stay away from what is unknown or different? Perhaps it is fear of the unknown, or maybe we have experienced negative interactions with other races. Maybe we simply like comfort and familiarity, and don’t want to step outside that bubble. We buy albums only if we know at least one of the songs. We go to places that are based on others’ recommendations. We even buy books whose characters are like us or our children. But what if we actively searched for friends/music/books/businesses that are not like ourselves? I am so thankful for churches actively trying to be more diverse, not for the sake of keeping up with the current culture or to look like they’re trying to embrace diversity in motto only. The Bible, particularly the New Testament, is adamant that all believers are ONE.

There is no distinction between Jew or Greek, because the same Lord of all richly blesses all who call on Him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Romans 10:12-13

For those of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free…since you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galations 3:27-28

For He is our peace, who made both groups (Jews & Gentiles) one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In His flesh, he made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that he might create in himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace…So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household.

Ephesians 2:14-15, 19

In Acts 8, one of the first recorded converts to Christianity is an Ethiopian man in charge of the treasury for Queen of Ethiopia. Philip led that man to Jesus, and baptized him. When both men came up out of the water, Philip disappeared, and the Ethiopian man “went on his way, rejoicing!” How’s that for an overt message that everyone is welcomed into God’s family? Before Jesus, the Jews and Gentiles did not intermix. The Gentiles were anyone not Jewish, and were considered “unclean.” But because of Jesus, everyone has forgiveness. No human, who believes Jesus died for their sins and acknowledges that Jesus is Lord and Savior, is considered unclean. Just before Jesus ascended into heaven after rising from the dead, the last thing he told his disciples in Jerusalem was this: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) It was because of the disciples’ obedience that the name of Jesus has been and is declared around the world. Every human from every race is welcomed into God’s family. We as Americans are so blessed that we have the freedom to worship, churches are everywhere, and that Bibles are so easily obtainable. We may take that freedom for granted, even assume the title of “Christian” simply because we were born here. Christianity did not originate here, but in Israel, in the Middle East. Jesus was born in Bethlehem and lived in Jerusalem. Jesus was most certainly not a white man, nor were his disciples.

Whether Jew or Gentile, black or white or brown, no matter your ancestry or heritage, none of that differentiation matters because of Jesus. Identity politics seeks to ram a wedge between everyone, simply so that some can claim higher moral ground or so that others can claim most adversity; and that does nothing but drive us farther apart, cause justified anger and resentment, and cause those of mixed races feel like they have to choose a side, and/or that they don’t belong. We are all God’s children. Jesus provides us all the credentials we need to become family. He is our identity. God designed everything in creation to be awe-inspiring. He created various shades of skin to show off his creativity, not for some man-made hierarchy. We must act like followers of Jesus in showing love and respect, kindness and compassion to everyone. I’m so thankful for my non-white friendships, but I pray for opportunities to meet more women who don’t look like me. I want my girls to do the same. We could all learn so much from each other. This pandemic has really hindered us from being social and even from going to church in-person, but I pray that those I surround myself start to look how everyone in Heaven is going to look; colorful.

Mi abuelo

My girls and I were looking at our family’s photo albums this morning, when I decided to dig out photos my paternal grandma had given me years ago. There were photos of her as a child, photos of my dad as a baby, a picture of me on my first day of Kindergarden, and a photo of my grandma and my biological grandfather on their wedding day. I’m basically a carbon-copy of my grandmother and my dad. As genetics would have it, my dad only takes after his mom in appearance.

Until about fifteen years ago, my dad was 18 years old the last time he saw his father. I was born four years later, when my dad was nearly 22. I can remember being maybe five or six, being on the phone with a man with a Spanish accent my dad told me to call him Ernie. Both my parents were sitting on the floor with me smiling as I said hello. He asked me if I had a boyfriend yet. I laughed at him and said, “No way!” and that’s all I remember about the man who was my dad’s dad until I graduated from college. I guess as a child, you don’t pick up on those kinds of conversations, or maybe they didn’t happen when I was around. But, my grandma filled me in once I was old enough to understand heartbreak. My grandfather had been in the US Army when he was deployed to France over 65 years ago. He met a gorgeous blue-eyed blond who spoke French and Spanish and fell in love. They married and had my dad in Bordeaux, followed by two more sons. They were stationed in Germany for a few years, and then ultimately, to Virginia in the US. He got called to to Vietnam and there he remained for a full term. After he returned from Vietnam, his relationship with my grandma was different. Abruptly, he told her that he had orders to go back. My grandma, shocked and angry, marched to his direct officer’s office and demanded why he was being sent back after he had just finished his tour. “Ma’am, he volunteered,” the officer told her hesitantly. He had met someone else. So, he left his family in Virginia and started a new family in California, and a son just a few years before I was born. That was kind of it. No looking back. No birthday cards. No visits. I’m not sure if there were any big goodbyes or even how my dad and his brothers reacted. I’m sure they felt abandoned. Stunned? Angry? Guilty? Bitter? Most likely yes to all of the above.

One of my college roommates, Carmen, moved to Los Angeles for her first job after graduation. She invited me to come out to visit her, so I decided that if I was going to fly across the country, I should officially meet my dad’s father who lived nearby. I called up my dad to ask him his thoughts. He was so excited that I wanted to meet his dad, he even called his dad after years of silence. He wanted to make sure his father would be willing to meet me in person. The conversation was positive. He agreed to meet me. Carmen, along with our other roommate from college, Sunita, and I piled into Carmen’s car and followed the route to my grandfather’s home address. We pulled in front of his house, and all of a sudden, years of emotions spilled out of me. I cried, overwhelmed at never having met the man who was the father to my father. I was the same age my dad was the last time he saw the man I was about to meet. Carmen and Sunita soothed and encouraged me, told me they’d be with me the whole time. So, I pulled myself together, wiped off the tears from my face, and stepped out of the car. My friends bolstered me up on each side as I rang the doorbell. The door opened, and a man with beautiful light brown skin, a wide nose, brown eyes, and white hair (that used to be jet-black) pulled into a low ponytail opened the door. The first thing he did was laugh and say to me, “You look just like your father.” He welcomed us in and introduced us to his wife. The five of us sat around the kitchen table and talked for hours until dinnertime threatened to break up the conversation. It was clear he wasn’t ready for us to leave, so he invited to take all of us out to a restaurant and they treated the three of us to dinner. It was difficult to say goodbye that night. I didn’t know when, or even if, I would see him again. I was thankful that I had gotten to meet this man, and that somehow, maybe that if he had felt remorse over leaving his family so long ago, he would know that it was all in the past now.

Observant Participant

When I write during my daughters’ nap time, my computer sits on the dining table with the cord plugged into the wall behind me. It’s fine while I’m sitting alone, but once my little girls come downstairs, I have to put away my laptop. Otherwise, without fail, at least one of them will trip over the cord or kick it out of the magnetic connection by walking through it; no matter how many times I remind them that the cord is there! As exasperating as it is, I do the same thing. I’ve plowed through others’ feelings because I was so concerned with carrying my own. I’m certainly guilty of being so distracted by my phone that I’m barely listening to what my husband is saying. Only to hear him later ask me in frustration, “Do you ever listen to me?” I’m often so busy with making dinner or cleaning up my house, that I ignore my girls who just want some one-on-one time with their mama. Lord, please give me the eyes to see and ears to listen to what’s really important. Help me to be an observant participant in this life you’ve given me.

Once This, Then That

Once I turn 16, I can drive.

Once I graduate, I’ll move to where I want to live.

Once I have a real job, I can buy a house.

Once my acne clears up, I’ll wear expensive makeup.

Once I meet the right guy, I won’t be alone anymore.

Once we start dating, he’ll fall in love and give me a diamond ring.

Once we get married, we can have a baby.

Once my baby stops nursing, I’ll get my body back.

Once this kid is potty trained, life will be so much easier.

Once she starts going to school, I’ll have more time for myself.

Once I get my blog together, I’ll feel like a writer.

Once I get a book published, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.

“Once this, then that” can take up our entire lives. How selfish these statements sound all piled up together. Can I ever just be content with what I have, with circumstances as they are? We all want something better, easier, newer, and complete. But it all takes time and effort. Nothing of value is immediate. Today, I read Romans 12:12 to “Rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be persistent in prayer.” Once I learn to be content and find joy in all circumstances, that’s when I can enjoy the process of life. Once that occurs, life also will become less about me, and more about God.

Saving the World

My oldest daughter, Noelle, was wearing her Captain America cape, my youngest was in her pink Anna cloak, both of them dressed their Elsa gowns (it’s all about Frozen in this house) on New Year’s Eve. “Come on, Autumn! Let’s go save the world!” my oldest called to her sister trailing behind her, as they scrambled down the stairs. Just a few days later, a horrifying display of hostility, anger, vindictiveness, and destruction ensued in our nation’s capital. On top of the countless other acts of violence and hate in recent memory, my heart has been so heavy for my girls, aware that this is the world they have been born into. But, I cannot remain in that head and heart space. I cannot be buried in my phone with that awful “smiley face above my nose,” (as my oldest calls my furrowed brow) while I ignore my girls and get sucked into reading the latest atrocious headline. As the mother to my girls, I am called to read God’s Word and pray. Oh, pray, dear Mamas.

We made the difficult, but prudent decision to keep our girls home with me as their teacher this year due to the pandemic and my husband’s job. It’s so easy to allow fear to decide that I will homeschool my girls all the way through college. But, God didn’t bring these babies into the world just for my benefit, or for my husband’s pride, or for our amusement, and certainly not to hide away from the world. I think back to how Jesus’ mother Mary must have felt when Jesus was a toddler. He was so innocent, so loving, so happy, and the world was everything the opposite, as it is now. When Jesus was a tween, she and Joseph nearly lost their minds after looking all over for him. They finally found Jesus in the temple, where he was teaching and asking questions beyond his age. She must have felt both proud and terrified, that her baby boy, the son whom she could not keep hidden forever safe from harm, would soon be grown up and on his own. He had his own calling on his life. He would not follow in his earthly father’s (albeit step-father’s) footsteps and be a carpenter all his days. Mary was faithful to teach Jesus the Scriptures and then let him out into the world when it was time. Even to the point he was crucified in front of her, murdered by a senseless, angry mob. How her heart must have shattered when she heard Jesus cry out, “Father, forgive them! They don’t know what they’re doing!” She, his own mother, could not yet understand the depth or the significance of his sacrifice until later.

My prayer for my girls is that God would act as baleen, filtering out the negative, impatient, distracted words or actions against them, and that only the positive, true, life-giving things feed their souls. I pray that they never lose that sparkle in their eyes or the magic in their imaginations. That they would always believe that every person, no matter what they look like, will respond to a wave and a smile, and has a story worth sharing. That their childlike faith would grow deep roots, giving their souls, hearts, and minds an anchor to cling to, when it seems that everyone and everything has failed them. May they believe it down to their toes that God is with them always. I pray that silence and stillness would be a comfort to them, particularly in this ever-distracted age, because only in that space does God make his voice heard. May they never succumb to earthly, temporary temptations that slink around and claw at them for attention. I pray that they keep their minds fixed on that which is true and right, extraordinary, pure, and beautiful. I pray that God sets angels to keep charge over them all the days of their long lives. As their mother, I would love for them to not have to experience pain, or heartache, or sickness, or financial hardship. But I don’t want them to live comfortable, easy lives, either. I want them to be brave and be bold, to take risks and stand up for what is right, and let their lights shine so brightly that everyone who meets them will see that they’re different. A kind of different that draws others in. A kind of different that doesn’t spotlight themselves, but the kind that declares the love of Jesus inside them. And my prayer for myself is that I would trust God with my girls. I realize they will inevitably make decisions that don’t make sense to me, circumstances will not always comply with my wishes, but I will trust that God has plans for each of them, plans for their good, and plans that will change their generation for good.